In a fictional piece at Anglican Mainstream, Andrew Symes asks the rhetorical question “’Changing Attitudes’ – why not changing desires?”
His story concerns Sally, a married Christian woman with a history of attraction to both men and women, who finds herself attracted to a woman at work: ‘something that she knew was adulterous, immoral and potentially destructive. What was the matter with her? Prayer did not reduce the desire. Could someone else help her?’
The remainder of the scenario is basically a lament that reparative therapy is no longer available from Christian counsellors in the UK. The reason given for its unavailability is attributed to a “furious backlash from LGBT activists [that] had led to harassment of ex-gays and the demanding of legal prohibition of what was disparagingly called “conversion therapy”. It can cause harm, they argued, and besides, homosexuality is normal and no one should want to diminish it”.
This, of course, is a completely fallacious account as to why reparative therapy has been discredited as a ‘treatment’ for same-sex attraction. Its repeated failure to change people’s sexual orientation, and the psychological and emotional damage inflicted on them in the process, has become increasingly well-documented as numerous individuals and formerly ex-gay organisations have conceded its inadequacy and inappropriateness.
Professional counsellors are bound by a code of conduct and by the ethical principles of beneficence – promoting the well-being of the client – and non-maleficence – the avoidance of doing harm to the client. Given the body of evidence that, in many instances, reparative therapy has been, and still is, ineffective and a source of psychological and emotional harm to those who have undergone it, the therapist in the story is simply behaving responsibly in refusing Sally’s request for this controversial treatment.
Symes’ suggestion that Sally might proceed with such therapy, with the support of Richard, her husband, and her local church, is an irresponsible one and seems to avoid the presenting issue which is less about Sally’s same-sex desire and more about the state of her marriage. A therapist is likely to be more interested in why these desires have resurfaced now, and the degree of reality or fantasy in her feelings for her female colleague. Are her feelings reciprocated for example? That would seem to be implied by Sally’s conviction that she is engaged in something adulterous but it is not clearly stated.
Given that Sally perceives her same-sex attraction as sin it is little wonder that she wishes to be rid of it, but let’s say Sally was attracted to a man at work, which could just as easily happen. In that case, we might want to speak about Sally’s need to manage her desire for the other person, so that she remains faithful to her vows to Richard. Rather than eradicating her loving feelings they could, with counselling, prayer and emotional support, be redirected to her husband. A similar re-orientating of desire from the woman colleague to her covenanted partner, Richard, is precisely what is called for in the scenario Symes depicts, and not the eradication of her love for the other person.
Christian asceticism can involve the reorientation of desire as well as its renunciation – indeed, renunciation often leads to the reappearance of the said desire in even more strident form so that the second state of that (wo)man is worse than the first. Sally can’t see that though. She clings at straws when she invokes the notion of ‘sexual fluidity’ to support the idea that she can fundamentally change her sexual desires. It is very unlikely that she will be able to alter her sexual orientation – which in her case is to both men and women. She might, though, by God’s grace, re-orientate her wayward loving feelings to the man with whom she has promised to spend her life.